How to Troubleshoot Your Radiant Heat System After an Idle Summer

Bill Lipp
Bill Lipp at work. Photo by David Toerge.

The recent cold weather has many turning on their radiant heating systems for the first time in months, which means plenty of unlucky homeowners are discovering latent problems that have been lurking all summer.

In the hopes of saving at least a few headaches, I thought it would be a good time to consult with the experts at Lipp Hydronics about what problems homeowners might experience after an idle summer, what symptoms they should look for when they first fire up their systems, and what they should do about it.

Before even turning the system on, "you start by seeing if the system has pressure. If the pressure gauge is on zero, you call me. It should be something between five to 30," Bill Lipp told me recently. Turning on a boiler with no pressure in the system can create a serious problem. "If that's the case, you don't run it or you'll burn the boiler out," Lipp says. "If you see no pressure, you turn it off and get it repaired."

When first switching on the system, Lipp says to listen carefully to the boiler. "They might hear excessive noise from the boiler, either a pumping, a thumping, or a howling. Any abnormal noise should make you turn it off again and get it looked at. Noises could indicate it's low on water, or the pump is broken. Maybe it just has a broken part. Or there's air in the boiler. Those are your main things. But either way, if they're hearing noises, they should stop and have it serviced."

Some problems won't be immediately apparent. The house can take a while to heat up all the way through, Lipp points out, but if some or all of the system isn't getting warm after 24 hours, something's wrong.

"If the house isn't heating in some areas, and they've waited long enough, then there's something like a blockage in the lines. Either air or sludge." A system-wide failure could indicate a problem with the boiler or the lines, but either way, it obviously warrants a call to the repairman.

To keep the system healthy during the off months, Lipp recommends running the boiler for 10 minutes or so every month. "That frees up the pump so it won't get stuck." A preventative inspection every two to three years couldn't hurt, he added.

But for those who suddenly find themselves without heat, Lipp says he and his crews are busy but handling the rush. "We go out every day. We handle them as they come in. I've got eight of them waiting today for my help." Apparently it's not just retailers who get pushed into the black at this time of year.